Friday, October 16, 2015

Played on Squares 4: Woolf

So far this account of chess and the Bloomsbury Group has looked (in episode 1) at a proper chesser who played seriously at university and who appeared to continue to do so for the rest of his life: John Neville Keynes, Maynard's father. In episodes 2 and 3, we looked at Roger Fry who also took his chess rather seriously, albeit at a less exalted level than Keynes Senior. In fact, so seriously did Fry take his chess that he felt it necessary to cheat to win. Perhaps we could call him an improper chesser.

Now, in episode 4, we move on to examine the chess life and times of Leonard Woolf (1880-1969).

Bust by Charlotte Hewer at Monk's House
From here
Although the evidence for his chess playing is regrettably slight, there is, nevertheless, a telling anecdote from 1921 that shows that he had a golden opportunity to make a breakthrough chess-wise: not though, it should be said, into the dizzying heights, but at a rather more modest level.

So, who was Leonard Woolf, this chessic might have been? He married Virginia Stephen in 1912 after his return from a tour of duty as a colonial administrator (with plenty of time to play chess?) in Sri Lanka - or "Ceylon" as it was then called - and this is what she wrote of him at that time by way of a biographical thumbnail:
"First he is a Jew; second he is 31; third he spent 7 years in Ceylon, governing natives, inventing ploughs, shooting tigers, and did so well that they offered him a very high place the other day, which he refused, wishing to marry me, and gave up his entire career there on the chance that I would agree." (LVW v1 p 503.)
He was also a Fabian Socialist, publisher, essayist, novelist, political theorist, an early advocate of the League of Nations to secure world peace, and in later life he was to become an active, publicly engaged, citizen in the village of Rodmell, half way between Newhaven and Lewes in Sussex. It is here that he and Virginia - to whom he was devoted - bought the basic, and initially rather damp, Monk's House in 1919 (much improved later as Virginia's books sold well). Here she tragically committed suicide in 1941. He lived on there for another quarter of a century, developing another relationship with the artist Trekkie Parsons.

Woolf says, in his autobiography (S p.65), that at prep school he was good at cricket and football, although there is no comment about his chess - indeed it is not mentioned at all in his own extensive autobiographical writing: the references below are from others, principally Virginia Woolf.

However, he must have learnt the moves somewhere, because he played at Cambridge where he had become friends with other soon-to-be-Bloomsberries. According to Victoria Glendenning's excellent biography (LWal p. 46) at Cambridge he played "serial games of chess and draughts" with his room mate Saxon Sydney-Turner, with "Leonard religiously - it is the only word - keeping and preserving the scores". He also pressed into service a chess metaphor when talking about another Cantab contemporary, Bertrand Russell. It suggests Leonard was familiar with the higher levels of the game
"Russell has the quickest mind of anyone I have ever known; like the greatest of chess players he sees in a flash six moves ahead of the ordinary players and one move ahead of all the other Grand Masters" (S p.134)       
And Bertie could play, too..

Bertrand Russell, 68, prof. of philosophy at UCLA, 
playing with his son John Conrad,  April 1940
 - via Peter Stackpole  [+] from Life you will see if you click on the picture to enlarge. It is a rational position, as chess readers will recognise.  I wonder if Leonard had played Bertrand 40 years before this photograph, when they were both at university.

In 1921, two years after the Woolfs bought Monk's House, and were now known in the area, we find that suggestive chess reference, this time relating to Leonard alone, which we'll get to after a brief preamble.

Virginia's diary entry for Wednesday 17 August records a visit by Dr. Vallance of Lewes "a mild, heavy-lidded, little elderly man...has always lived here, existing on a few broad medical truths learnt years ago..". To cut a long story short: she records that Dr.Vallance had known the previous owner of Monk's House, Jacob Verrall, who had "starved himself purposely to death". The good Doctor recounted how, on the occasion of one home visit during Verrall's decline, the pair of them had to snuggle up to the chimney for warmth, and how, without success, he had tried to interest Mr.Verrall in chess.

Dr Vallance, by the way, wasn't the only one who thought chess kept body and soul together. Virginia had made a similar observation (in her diary for 4 January 1918) in connection with Leonard's sister Flora. Noting that she can "type, write, do shorthand, sing, play chess [my italics - MS], write stories which are sometimes accepted..." Virginia adds "doing these various arts she will keep lively till a great old age, like a man playing with five billiard balls." Which is a nice, and unsolicited, recommendation for the game - chess, not billiards - and suggests Flora and Leonard may have learnt to play together as children.

And how is it that Dr. Vallance was such an enthusiast for beneficial properties of chess? Virginia provides the answer as she describes his visit to Monk's House:
"Crossing his knees, & touching his little moustache meditatively now & then V[allance] then asked me if I did anything?....I said I wrote -'What novels? - light things?' Yes novels. 'I have another lady novelist among my patients - Mrs Dudeney...But Mr. Dudeney is the puzzle king. Give him any puzzle - he'll tell you the answer...He writes columns in the papers about puzzles'....Here [Dr. Vallance] crossed his legs the opposite way. Finally he went, and invited L[eonard] to join the Lewes Chess Club, which I should very much like to attend myself, these glimpses into different groups always fascinate me intolerably, for I shall never join the party of Dr Vallance and the puzzle king...." (DVW Vol II p. 131-2)                  
From this notice in the Sussex Agricultural Press of 24 March 1921 we can see that Mr Dudeney and Dr Vallance were President and Treasurer respectively of the Lewes Chess Club:

Some helpful information about the club comes from Brian Denman, the historian of Sussex chess, who says that Lewes CC was active at the end of the 19th Century, declined, then began a revival towards the end of WW1 with a meeting at Dr.Vallance's house in 1917. By the 20s and 30s it was one of Sussex's finest. (But see the note at the end.)

There is a recorded game, a quick defeat, of Dr. Vallance's on board 4 of a Lewes v Brighton match in 1925, but we won't embarrass his memory by showing it here - he disappears from the chess record after 1925, and died in 1939. Instead here is a game by Vice-President Rev E. Griffiths also involved with the Lewes CC revival, and one of the strongest players in the county. This game, though, was played for Brighton CC. In brief White wins a pawn, then another drops; Black fails to get any counter play based on the opposite-colour bishops; the Queens are swapped off and Black is dead. Griffiths plays a highly competent club level game.

Unfortunately today's Lewes CC doesn't have records from the 1920s that would show whether or not Leonard accepted the invitation to join. Perhaps there would have been mention of it in his papers, and Virginia's diary or letters, had he done so. Incidentally, there is no mention either that Virginia played herself. But if she had wanted to join the Lewes CC for anthropological research (to get a "tolerably fascinating glimpse") then she would have had no grounds for fearing a bar against women. As may be seen above, a Miss W. Crewe had been elected to the Executive Committee only a few months earlier.

As for Leonard, member or not, it says something of his chess inclination that it was known about locally, and had come to the attention of Dr.Vallance; and although he had apparently declined the invitation in 1921 there are, as we noted in the preceding Roger Fry episodes, a number of references in Virginia's diaries to Leonard and Fry playing each other after that date. On the 20th May 1926 she was still up at 11.25: "Waiting for L. to come back from chess with Roger." - at Charleston (Bloomsbury HQ a couple of miles away), presumably. Leonard's absence gave her time to confide to her diary her thoughts and feelings for Vita Sackville-West: "I am amused by my relations with her....I like her presence & her beauty. Am I in love with her? But what is love? Her being 'in love' (it must be comma'd thus) with me, excites & flatters; & interests. What is this 'love'?" (So, dear chessers, be warned by this cautionary tale: when you are out to play your significant other may be playing away as well...)

In 1932, Monday 18th April, on holiday in Italy she notes that "L. & R[oger] play chess & teach each other Greek. R. is sweet, rich, accommodating, infinitely serious, & rolls out rich Italian commands to the Gondaliers". And then again in Greece, Sunday 8 May: "....very hot and dusty...(I don't like Sundays, not even here) ...Still [it is] the last night, & L. playing chess still with Roger..."

These last two snippets emphasise Leonard and Roger's enthusiasm for the game - and the indulgent patience of their companions. In a third (noted also in episode 2) Virginia even seemed to have allowed herself to be the go-between in a correspondence game: in a letter of 29th April 1921 we find: to Roger Fry; from "Yours ever, V.W., Monk's House, Rodmell, Lewes. My Dear Roger, KT-KT3. That is Leonard's cryptic message...."

Unfortunately there are no comments recorded from either of them as to who was the stronger player over the years, and nor does Leonard record Roger deploying his infamous arsenal of illegal tricks (as documented in the last episode); but then, had Roger done so Leonard would surely have been too much of a gentleman to have broadcast it. Likely, anyway, that Roger would not have tried it on at the risk of being rumbled. He would not have wanted to attract Leonard's opprobrium. After all, Leonard had shot tigers in Ceylon. 

After Fry's death in 1934 Leonard was without a regular sparring partner, and yet even a few years later, when the war had broken out, he was still up for a game. Thus, Virginia records in her diary for Tuesday 17 September 1940 that on returning home "we found a young soldier in the garden last night" asking to speak to Mr Woolf. He was from the anti-aircraft searchlight on the hill and wanted to borrow a typewriter as his Officer "had gone & taken his." She records that he "Finds it dull....Then he said 'Pardon Sir. Do you play chess?" He was invited to dinner, and chess, that Sunday.

Rodmell in yesteryear
From here
During Dr Vallance's visit twenty years earlier you could imagine that Virginia (a prodigious diarist, as we have seen) would have bristled at his presumption that only Leonard could play, and that only he should have been invited to join Lewes Chess Club - leaving aside Dr Vallance's implication that Virginia was too feeble to write anything more than a frivolous novelette. Her curiosity about the Lewes clique may have been piqued by the unexpected talent (a puzzle king and a fellow authoress) just up the road; but ironically Virginia herself was to be a subject for another fastidious diarist, the aforementioned, and prolific, Mrs Alice Dudeney (she with no less than 50 novels in the British Library catalogue, one suggestively tilted "The Next Move.").

This is Alice's diary note of 19 March 1941, made as the privations of war were biting; and, though she, Alice, could not have known it, Virginia's episodic illness was engulfing her once again.  
"Dr. Dunstan (see note) said that the new Sanitary Inspector (and new to Lewes) was at Rodmell near the 'pub' when he saw the most shabby, miserable-looking man and woman slouching along. He was so moved  that he went to the inn and asked the landlord if he thought these poor wretches, clearly 'evacuees', would be offended if he asked them in to have a cup of tea at his expense. The landlord, very tickled, advised him to make no such offer, adding 'That's Virginia Woolf and her husband'." (LD p.206 )
This is all the more poignant, not to say shocking, as - according to careful reading and dating (LVW VI p. 489) of Virginia's last, moving, letters - it is plausible that she had made a failed suicide attempt just the day before on March 18th: she had returned wet and muddy from the direction of the river. She only succeeded (if that is the right word) in drowning herself a few days later, on March 28th.

Bloomsbury had lost three significant members in just under ten years: Lytton Strachey in 1932, Roger Fry in 1934, and now Virginia in 1941. Julian Bell (Vanessa and Clive's elder son) had been killed in Spain in 1937. Things couldn't be the same again.

Leonard ploughed on and was not without female admirers. He maintained an interest in the ground-breaking publishing venture, the Hogarth Press, that he and Virginia had founded back in 1917 - and for want of another chess reference we should mention that the Press had published (1922) The Waste Land, the modernist poem by T.S.Eliot who had been a frequent guest at Rodmell.

From here
As is well-known, the work has, as Part II, A Game of Chess:  "And we shall play a game of chess,/Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door." Eliot gives a note to the poem referencing "the game of chess in Middleton's Women beware Women", which you can read about on the Blog here. The unflattering portrayal of chess by Eliot is said to convey the ennui of a protracted game, and invoke the themes of dissimulation and violation in the Middleton play.

In among Leonard's political activities, civil service labour relations work, local civic duties, gardening, and his role as guardian-cum-disseminator of Virginia Woolf's literary legacy, he did find time for some chess - there is this nice painting by his new partner Trekkie Parsons of him playing with Kingsley Martin, who he knew through his involvement with the New Statesman.
Leonard Woolf and Kingsley Martin Playing Chess (nd)
Trekkie Parsons
From here  
I like the swirling movement in the painting, even though the players are frozen in concentration as they wait for the knock upon the door. Leonard Woolf died in 1969. There is a catalogue of the Monk's House library of several thousand volumes which were dispersed on his death (although an effort is being made to restore some of them to Monk's House). It contained, as far as I could see on inspection of its catalogue, no chess books.

This post has, perhaps inevitably, been as much about Virginia as Leonard Woolf - but it was he who played the chess. In the final episode of the series we will examine the most surprising and overlooked Bloomsbury chesser of them all; one who was, for a few years anyway, a properly serious player.

The Drs. Dunstan.
Chess historians will recognise the name Dunstan. Dr. Robert Dunstan was a member of Brixton Chess Club before moving to Devon, and becoming Devon champion in 1911, and again in 1921 and 1922 - see Bob Jones' article here, to which this note is indebted. He was a medical officer of troops in WW1, and retired to Sussex, where he played more chess, he died in 1927. The Dr. Dunstan reported by Alice Dudeney, was W.R. - Walter Robert - his son and also a chess player and medical man. Interestingly the Surrey Express and County Herald  of 30 June 1939 had a report of the formation of a Lewes Town Council Welfare Committee in preparation for 2,400 wartime evacuees. Chosen to serve on the committee were Dr W.R. Dunstan and a Rev. E. Griffiths. Evacuees would have been on many people's minds in 1941, the year of Virginia's death.
Lewes Chess Club (note added post publication)
The text above rather overstates the Club's success between the wars - Brian Denman points out that the success in the 20s had run out by the beginning of the 30s. There was a brief revival in 1938 until the war put an end even to that.  
References etc. 

BC Brighton Chess (1994) Brian Denman. Published by the Author.

DVW The Diary of Virginia Woolf  (Six volumes) (1977) Anne Oliver Bell (ed) Hogarth Press, London
LD A Lewes Diary, 1916-1944/by Mrs Henry Dudeney (c1998) Diana Crook (ed) Tartarus Press Heathfield, Sussex
LVW Letters of Virginia Woolf  (Six Volumes) (1977-8)  Harcourt, NY and London 
S Leonard Woolf Sowing - autobiog years 1880-1904  (1960) Hogarth Press, London.

With thanks to Brian Denman, Matthew Britnell (Secretary of Lewes Chess Club), and Richard James. 

Other Episodes: 1. Keynes2.  Fry3: Fry, part 2 5.Strachey; 6. Empire Days  7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.

History Index 


Jonathan B said...

Virginia had made a similar observation (in her diary for 4 January 1918) in connection with Leonard's sister Flora. Noting that she can "type, write, do shorthand, sing, play chess [my italics - MS], write stories which are sometimes accepted..." Virginia adds "doing these various arts she will keep lively till a great old age ....

As Richard James has suggested, perhaps this is the earliest "chess prevents dementia" claim on record.

Martin Smith said...

"...perhaps this is the earliest "chess prevents dementia" claim on record."

...and notably unsupported by references to peer-reviewed research papers published in the scientific journals etc...